I was talking to my friend Stan Tekiela this past Wednesday and he wanted to know if I was doing anything Saturday night. I was not, so he asked if I would help him out with his evening sandhill crane field trip to Crex Meadows. All the elements for a party were there for me: birds, Crex, Stan...and even a little wine--although, since I was working I did not imbibe on this trip.
Check it out, birders do drink! The great thing about going on a field trip with Stan is that he adds special touches to it to take it out of the ordinary bird trip. Also, Stan is a true naturalist and can tell you about not only birds but also mammals, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms--even astronomy. He brought along this really nifty new toy called a Sky Scout which you aim at a star or planet in the sky and it tells you all the particulars of what you are looking at. You can also use it to find out what's cool to look at that night. I might have to talk to my sisters about chipping in and getting mom one of those for Christmas.
Crex Meadows is one of the best places to bird around. This time of year cranes are staging before heading to Florida (those are sandhill cranes in the above photo). I think sometimes Minnesota birders forget about it, because it's just across the border in Wisconsin and none of the birds are countable for a Minnesota list.
The bird variety is fabulous which appeals to hardcore birders, but most of the birding can be done by vehicle, so it's ideal for beginners and those with mobility issues. It's managed for hunting--especially sharp-tailed grouse but many other species benefit. I can generally count on seeing trumpeter swans, cranes, all sorts of waterfowl and eagles, just to name a few. Mammal variety is good and it's not uncommon to see wolf and black bear from your vehicle on a visit to Crex.
I think I really earned my paycheck with the bird in the above photo. I spotted it as Stan was driving. Don't ask me how I spotted it, I can barely see it in this photo. Can you see it? See where the mud becomes a widow's peak? There a brownish leaf and that leaf is actually the bird. Well, maybe the photo I took through my binoculars might help:
A snipe! We actually ended up seeing quite a few snipe flying around, but this was the only one that we saw sitting. Everyone on the bus got good long looks at it. I have to admit, this was one of the best looks at snipe I ever got. Something else Crex is famous for: great looks at hard to see birds. Stan and I led a trip through here once where we ended up seeing 4 American bitterns in a stretch that was less than a mile. Everyone got to look down and see the bitterns hunt, walk and just be a bittern. I think it's because the roads are elevated and you're looking down. Plus, birds don't worry too much about cars, they only worry when the cards open and things come out.
Here was a muskrat that was hanging out on the side of the road. Stan pulled over so we could all watch it, and it trundled along the side of the bus, crossed out in front and then slipped into some water on the other side. A very accommodating rodent!
We pulled over to get a better look at a young trumpeter swan when someone found a whitish bird. Stan had everyone get out so we could get a better look. It was a lone snow bunting. Stan pointed out that if there is a flock of snow buntings, you can't get near it. But one snow bunting will let you get quite close. Stan's cameras are never too far away, so he took an opportunity to photograph the bunting. What was interesting was that the bunting went about its business as we marveled at it, and it only flew away when a low flock of cranes came over us. The snow bunting was a sign of other the winter birds we would see this afternoon--we ended up seeing a male merlin and a rough-legged hawk too--winter specialties here.
We pulled over to watch the cranes come in and we set up our food. For anyone who is thinking of becoming a field trip leader, I'll let you in on the secret of success: FOOD. You can have a lousy bird day, but if you keep those participants well fed you can keep them happy. We stood out in the thirty degree temps and watched for cranes.
The lighting and the sunset was gorgeous. In the above photo are three trumpeter swans flying in (towards the top of the photo).
We had seen cranes all day and some were coming in, but not like in year's past.
The cranes seemed to be roosting in a different spot this night. I have gone on this trip before and watched 4,000 cranes come in to roost, this night they were picking a different part of the refuge. People were still having a good time with the wine and with all the other birds we had seen that afternoon...but it wasn't over.
As we were taking in the sunset, Stan and I did a final scan. We were watching a pair of harriers far out in the field. Way behind the harriers, I saw two lighter forms. "Stan," I whispered, "aren't those short-eared owls?"
Stan took a look, at first he saw the harriers, but then further out, we could see three possibly four short-eared's--awesome birds, but they were so far out and moving so fast, you needed a really good pair of binos to get them in (or be fast with a good scope). We debated about whether or not to point them out. It was a good bet that no one or very few of our participants had seen one of these before. But at the same time, you have to make a judgment call: pointing out something that far away that most will not see can be really, really frustrating. Stan quietly started letting the group know, down playing everyone's chances of seeing the owls. Then, the owls came closer and started interacting with the harriers. Three short-ears ganged up on a first year harrier--and they were so close you could make out the light colored wings of the owls with the naked eye. Everyone got to see them and the thugs put on quite a show going after the harrier. Whew, doesn't always work out that well. I'm glad we ended up pointing them out!
I asked Stan if he would like to do some more trips together for next year and he is open to the idea. We're looking at a Nebraska crane trip, a woodcock trip in the Twin Cities and maybe even a spring North Dakota trip. I'll let you know details as I find them out.